The main characters in “Salvation” are Langston Hughes, Auntie Reed, and Westley.
- Langston Hughes is both the narrator and protagonist of this nonfiction story about losing his faith.
- Auntie Reed takes Hughes to the revival meeting. It is her explanation of salvation that confuses young Hughes, leading him to believe that he will see some physical manifestation of Jesus when he is saved.
- Westley is an irreverent boy who sits next to Hughes on the bench. When Westley pretends to be saved simply because he’s tired of sitting, the whole congregation cheers, exposing the inauthenticity of the ritual to Hughes.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
The narrator and protagonist of this story is Langston Hughes, the author himself. Given that this story was published as part of a memoir, it can be assumed that the story is autobiographical, though some poetic license may have been taken in its telling. The narration makes it feel as if there are two distinct versions of Langston present in this story. Langston Hughes, at the time of writing, is an adult, and therefore the narrator Langston has a context for the episode that the child Langston does not. For example, from the beginning of the story, Hughes as narrator recognizes that he was not "really" saved on this day. However, in recalling the experiences of himself as a child, he places himself back in the mindset of that young boy, who patiently waited to "see" Jesus, as if Jesus was about to literally walk into the church and greet him.
The young Hughes in this story is twelve years old, nearing thirteen. He has been taken to church by his Aunt Reed, and clearly he desires the approval of his aunt and the rest of the congregation. At the same time, he genuinely wants to (and believes he will) see Jesus. There is no willful resistance in his refusal to get up and go over to the altar with the other "saved" children; on the contrary, he is so certain in what adults have told him that he waits patiently, anticipating a blinding light of faith to appear.
He does not want to lie, as Westley does, and get up simply because he is tired of the mourners' bench. When he does finally get up, it is because he feels guilty for disappointing his aunt and the congregation, who have been waiting for some time. Unbeknownst to his aunt, in the moment that he stands and is celebrated for having come to God, he is actually experiencing a terrible loss of faith: he no longer believes in Jesus, because Jesus did not come to him in his moment of need.
Auntie Reed, Hughes's aunt, is a woman of great faith. She is very concerned with ensuring that her nephew is saved, as she has been. She talks about the forthcoming event for children at her church for many days before it happens, and has also explained to Hughes that the process of salvation entails light coming into one's life, along with Jesus. Unfortunately, however, the way in which she has described her own salvation leads him to expect a physical ray of light and a literal manifestation of Jesus, which ends up causing him great disappointment when he fails to experience salvation in this way.
The approval of adults, including his aunt, appears to be important to Hughes, and when they beg him to come to God, he eventually gets up and pretends to "be saved” rather than admit that he feels nothing. His aunt Reed is relieved by this, crying tears of thankfulness. Despite her apparent interest in his salvation, Auntie Reed does not seem especially attuned to her nephew’s state of mind. When she overhears him crying later that night, she attributes his tears to his newfound salvation, a narrative that suits what she already wants to think. In reality, her nephew is upset because he has lost his faith—in part, because of her actions.
Westley is a rounder's son and the only other child left sitting on the mourners' bench with Langston after all the other children have got up and gone to be saved. Evidently, Westley does not take the...
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process of salvation as seriously as Langston does. He eventually gives up on waiting to experience Jesus and, humorously, pretends to be saved simply because he is tired of sitting. Westley blasphemes in church ("God damn!"), and Hughes notes that Westley seems wholly unaffected by his deception—in fact, he looks "proud" and cheerfully swings his legs. Westley's irreverence serves as a contrast to young Hughes’s sincerity, but he is also a catalyst for Hughes’s epiphany. When Hughes sees that Westley has lied but not been struck down by God, or by any of the adults present, Hughes begins to wonder whether the salvation he’s waiting for is real at all.
The preacher in Auntie Reed's church is very "rhythmical" in his sermonizing, but he does not seem to be able to present his ideas to Hughes in a way that touches him spiritually. He appeals to the children, pleading them to come to God. One by one, they do until only Hughes is left. He then puts Hughes on the spot, addressing him by name and asking, "why won't you come?" This is profoundly confusing to young Hughes: he has not come up because he has not yet seen Jesus, but the preacher does not seem to grasp this fact. The preacher’s approach ultimately comes across as rather manipulative, and he seems more preoccupied with getting the children to perform salvation rather than truly experience it. In the end, Langston eventually gets up and goes to the altar to simply to appease both the preacher and his aunt.
The congregation in Auntie Reed's church is a loud and joyous one, yet their presence ultimately pressures Hughes into a deception. The worshippers are depicted through the eyes of the child Hughes as being "gnarled," and their age is contrasted with the youth of the children waiting to be saved. Though he desperately wants to experience salvation, Hughes does not understand how to join this joyous group of the saved without being dishonest. When the congregation excitedly cheers for his faked salvation, Hughes is disheartened, realizing that maybe the faith adults had described to him isn’t real at all.